Torah Lishmah and Nefesh haChaim

Nefesh haChaim, 1st edition

Nefesh haChaim
Cover Page, First Edition

Nefesh haChaim is a collection of Rav Chaim Volozhiner’s writings organized posthumously by his son and successor, R’ Yitzchak. We can see this in the self-description in the title page of the early editions of the Nefesh haChaim which opens, “Yir’as Hashem – for Life! Notebooks of holy writings of the true genius who was famous for his Torah and righteousness, and whose deeds proclaim before him.” The choice of title of the book “Nefesh haChaim” is explained that it is “based on the quote in the Jerusalem [Talmud], Sheqalim pg 6 [2:1, vilna ed. 10b], ‘Rabbi Shim’on ben Gamliel repeated: we do not make monuments [nefashos] for the righteous, for their words are their memorials.’ And the memory of the righteous is a blessing.” Thus the title means “Rabbi Chaim’s Memorial”, in addition to “The Living Soul”.

Being that it’s a compilation of multiple texts, Nefesh haChaim can be a challenge to combine into a single picture of how Rav Chaim believed we are to serve Hashem. Rabbi Elyakim Krumbein, in his essay Nefesh ha-Hayyim and the Root of the Musar Controversy (in Yirat Shamayim: The Awe, Reverence and Fear of God, ed. Marc D Stern), notes how the questions in this regard are more clear than the answers.

I mentioned this in my previous post, and suggested my diagnosis of the underlying issue:

… [T]his phenomenon is common. It explains the diversity of paths attributed to the Vilna Gaon, the varieties of Chassidus produced by the Baal Shem Tov’s students, and their students, the different schools of Mussar, the different takes of Rav Kook’s teachings among different communities of followers, or more recently the various very different takes on how to continue R’ JB Soloveitchik and the approach to life he taught.

In each case, the mentor was a brilliant, complex, and subtle thinker. So much so, that the students only had the capacity to relate to part of the mentor’s message and connect to it. They accurately see the rebbe, but only a much as they can hold. And so, like the blind men’s description of the elephant, the results diverge. But each is accurately teaching a way the rest of us can understand the original message.

But to discuss a specific approach to this particular text…

Overall Structure

First, because each section is really a pamphlet, called by the both the author and the editor a “qunterus“, in its own right, its topic was also originally expected to stand on its own. The amount of significance given to Torah study in the pamphlet that became section 4 does not change the significance given to (e.g.) tefillah in section 2. Rav Yitzchaq’s placing them in an overarching structure only has limited value in understanding the meaning of section 2 as it was written.

The first section of Nefesh haChaim speaks of the nature of the soul and man’s role in creation; how being in the image of E-lokim, G-d as Master of all the forces, means that we have the ability to change the world(s).

The second addresses prayer, and it gives people the ability to connect this world back to its Source. Section three is about unity and duality, and how the One G-d is present in creation. Then there are some chapters that about the yeitzer hara and its strategies, and how acting without full commitment to lishmah, to doing a mitzvah for its own sake, will lead to lishmah and thus vanquishing the yeitzer hara.

But the yeshivos focus on — in fact, most exclusively learn only — section four. There he discusses the special nature of Torah, its work on the soul, and how Torah study is central to the task of self-refinement. Obviously for those of the Yeshiva Movement, this is going to be the central piece to their worldview.

Rabbi Norman Lamm (in his book Torah Lishmah: Torah for Torah’s Sake) identified the basic problem with the resulting structure. Rabbi Elyakim Krumbein wrote his essay using Rabbi Lamm’s work as a foil. R’ Lamm took the yeshivish position, Rabbi Krumbein doesn’t so much provide a clear alternative reading, his goal is more to set out to prove that focusing on only the fourth sha’ar is incomplete, that we simply haven’t gotten to the full subtlety of Rav Chaim’s position.

But just looking at the overall structure myself, I think the section that is not like the others is the third one, actually. Section one explains how our actions in this world have metaphysical repercussions, and section two addresses prayer, and thus the power of human speech. Section four, is about human thought. But section three is about G-d, about the nature of tzimtzum and in what way is Hashem present in creation and what way is creation an independent entity.

The Introduction

The most logical place to find the author’s intent is his introduction. Here we can’t entirely do so, as Rav Chaim didn’t write one — Rav Yitzchak did. But since his father did leave him the essays and instructions for publication, this is still of some use. And besides, Rav Yitzchak Volozhiner’s own opinion is of sufficient import to be interested in his worldview.

In that introduction, Rav Yitzchak describes Rav Chaim Volozhiner with a long description of his love of Mussar. For example:

This is what he would constantly say to me: that no person was created for himself. Rather, [we were created] for helping others in any way he has the ability to do.

Rav Chaim “with the breadth of his understanding would carve and grave the ideas, the light matters and significant ones, and attach them to the way of the Torah, Avodah, and Yir’as Hashem”. This list of three items recurs in the introduction — Torah rarely appears alone. Also, as we noted above and explained in the introduction, the book was named for the concept of yir’as Hashem, not Talmud Torah.

Looking at the introduction, then, we would be hard pressed to find any description of the book as leading up to the fourth section, or giving Torah study primacy in the meaning of living. Actually, given his repeated instruction to his son, it would seem that such meaning would be found in mitzvos that aid others.

Section 3: Tzimtzum

As I opined in the opening section, it’s section three that really stands out. The other sections are anthropological; discussions of what it is to be a person and the abilities people have to impact creation. Section three, though, deals with Hashem’s relationship to creation, it’s theological.

I understand Rav Chaim Volozhiner’s position on tzimtzum differently than many readers. But then, this whole essay is my own take on a subject numerous others more informed than I am have disagreed about.

Tzimtzum is the Ari’s model of creation in Hashem “contracts” in order to make conceptual space, a possibility (we do not mean literal physical spacial contraction), of other things existing. The Yosher Levav understood this literally. However, that’s very problematic as it implies that Hashem Himself changed. And  both Chasidus and the Gra consider that notion heretical. In the Tanya, the noun is still the Ein Sof, the Infinite One Himself, but the verb tzimtzum is only an illusion. In the Vilna Gaon’s thought, the  tzimtzum is real, but he modifies the noun — it is not a “contraction” of Divine Essence, but something else, Hashem’s Ratzon (the expression of His Will). ((According to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Gra speaks of the tzimtzum of the Or Ein Sof, but that is not the terminology used in Nefesh haChaim, the Leshem or Michtav meiEliyahu — all spiritual heirs of the Gra.) )

Much of the second half of section 3 describes tzimtzum in terms of distinguishing between miTzido, from Hashem’s “perspective”, and mitzideinu, from ours. And therefore it is logical that many understand R’ Chaim Volozhiner’s position as being more like the Tanya’s than the Gra’s. But I believe his position actually sits in a middle ground, a synthesis that might even fully include his rebbe’s understanding.

In sec. 3 ch. 2 Rav Chaim explains that calling Hashem “haMaqom” is a rather limited metaphor. A literal maqom is a place or holder of an object without being the cause of its existence. However, if Hashem were to retract his Ratzon from anything, it would cease to exist; He is the Cause of existing. Thus the understanding that his position is like the Tanya’s.

But in chapter 4, Rav Chaim discusses the literal absence of Kevod Hashem, and the first appearance of the word tzimtzum, at the beginning of ch. 5, reads “…צמצם כביכול כבודו ית’ שיוכל להמצא ענין מציאות עולמות וכחות ובריות נבראים ומחודשים — He ‘constricted’, as it were, His Blessed Kavod that He could bring into existence the idea of existing worlds, forces/potentials, and creatures that are created and newly made.”

It seems to me that Nefesh haChaim is describing a literal tzimtzum of Hashem’s glory which then causes the illusion of an absence His Essence. Tzimtzum is something that actually occurred, but not to the Ein Sof — like the Gra, avoiding the problem of saying Hashem could change by making tzimtzum about a different noun. Rav Chaim does differ from the Gra about which noun; according to Rav Chaim, any absence of Hashem’s Ratzon, His Will, is part of the illusion. It’s His Kavod that is absent. Although I’m not sure how either the Vilna Gaon or Rav Chaim Volozhiner define “Ratzon” vs “Kavod“, so it is possible the difference is more in terminology than in substance. In any case, the point I want to emphasize to explain how I understand Nefesh haChaim and the concept of Torah lishmah is that Rav Chaim is giving us that duality: the real absence of Kevod Hashem (3:5) and the illusion of the absence of Hashem Himself (3:3).

The “Chapters”

According to Rabbi Krumbein’s analysis, much rests in the material R’ Yitzchaq Volozhiner placed between sections 3 and 4, so I will also visit them. The additions begin:

Pleasant reader! Here I have guided you with God’s help in the paths of truth, in order to show you the way to go assuredly, so that you may train yourself bit by bit by order of the aforementioned levels… You will see for yourself that the more you habituate yourself to each of these levels, your heart will increase in purity. … I also would like to discuss, in writing, the greatness of the obligation of Torah study…

Rabbi Norman Lamm (pp 61-62)  explains these lines as introducing section 4. This would place the entire explanation of Mussar (sections 1-3) as a preliminary to Torah study. The Yeshiva Movement apparently took this approach, which makes the pursuit of yir’as Hashem as something that is primarily obtain on its own from the total immersion in Torah that section 4 advocates.

However, R’ Elyakim Krumbein finds it more plausible that they are meant as a closing to the prior sections. To this, he cites two elements of the insertion that suggests this:

First, it only refers to section 4 once. It would be odd for an introduction to a section to overwhelmingly point to the rest of the book and only mention that section once.

Second, note those opening words “I also would like to discuss…” such discussion is an add-on. This is the Mussar Movement’s take on Rav Chaim’s teachings. Yir’as Shamayim is a goal in and of itself which must be pursued consciously in and of itself.

But within the description I gave above, in which sections 1, 2 and 4 deal with action, speech and thought, respectively, the “chapters” found between three and four serve as a prelude to the last section. They address the yeitzer hara and how to refine thought and motivation, and are thus speaking of the same domain as the section on Torah.

Section Four

In sec 4 ch. 3, Rav Chaim Volozhiner explains that  the “lishmah“, the “it’s own sake”, of Torah study is unique. (He has a longer description in Ruach haChahim on Avos 6:1,) Rav Elazar beRav Tzadoq says, “עשה דברים לשם פעלן ודבר בהן לשמן — do things for the sake of the One Who caused them, and speak about them for their own sake.” (Nedarim 51a) Rav Chaim cites the Rosh, who notes the difference in language: when it comes to mitzvos of action, we do them lesheim Pa’alan – for the sake of G-d; but when it comes to learning, we learn leshman — for their own sake.” And Rav Chaim points the reader back to something he wrote at the end of sha’ar 1, that the primary effect of the mitzvah is in the action itself, which is why kavanah (intent) is not an obligatory component of the mitzvah, but one that allows it to effect repairs in higher worlds than otherwise. But as he explained previously in ch. 2, the role of lishmah is different in kind for Torah, for immersion in and internalization of Torah is identification with Hashem’s Thought. One is not relating to Hashem-as-Maker of a world we’re trying to refine, but directly with Him. For the Torah’s sake is for the sake of becoming shaped by His Will. It is this that Rav Chaim identifies with communion with the A-limighty, rather than deveiqus, cleaving to Him. Chapters 4 – 7 discuss the relationship between yir’ah and Torah. To Rav Chaim, yir’ah is something you work on for a few minutes in preparation for learning. It is the silo that enables one to retain Torah. But the focus is on the Torah.

This is unlike the Chassidus, where deveiqus is seen as a personal relationship with G-d. And in the Tanya, yir’ah is the purpose of learning, rather than a prerequisite, and he recommends that one should pause occasionally during learning to remember G-d and insuring that the study is leading to yir’ah 

Rav Chaim seems to be asserting that “Torah lishmah” means that that learning is supposed to be an end in itself. But before R’ Chaim, this was FAR from consensus. A simple reading of either Talmud (TY Shabbos 1:2, vilna 7b, TB Sanhedrin 99b) would conclude that Torah lishmah is learning in order to know how to observe, how to decide future questions, or to teach. And assuming the amoraim aren’t really arguing, any of these three motives is “lishmah”. The Yerushalmi goes as far as to say “One who learns but not in order to do, would have been pleasanter that his umbilical cord would have prolapsed in front of his face [and he never came into the world].” The Meshekh Chokhmah (Devarim 28:61) explains that this is because it the goal were to get Torah into the soul, full stop, then that is more easily accomplished before birth, as an intellect unencumbered by a body. (I translated this comment in the Meshekh Chokhmah: part I, part II [where this point is made], part III.)

And a bigger problem with thinking that he means that Torah lishmah is an end to itself is that the introduction to the book tells us that Rav Chaim made a point of teaching his son that people were created for the sake of others. Refining my own knowledge doesn’t fit that worldview, unless it’s not actually the end in itself.

Conclusion

So, how do I understand Nefesh haChaim overall? With trepidation; after all I opened with the assertion that people far more knowledgable than I am only captured the aspects of Rav Chaim’s teachings that fit their abilities and perspectives. So, the following is merely yet another person’s incomplete picture.

I think the distinction between real tzimtzum of kevod Hashem and the apparent absence of G-d Himself parallels the the two types of lishmah, and the concept underlies Rav Yitzchaq’s decision of how to organize Nefesh haChaim.

Section 1 speaks of man’s ability to improve the world, that this is what it means to be in Hashem’s “image”.  Section 2 speaks about prayer, drawing G-dliness down into the world, and identifying the world and its problems with His Ends. (We do not pray for our health, we pray for the health that Hashem wishes He could give us.) Until sec. 3, we are dealing with things that are to be done lesheim Pa’alan. We are told in sec. 3 that the Maqom (the illusion of Hashem’s Kavod being absent) refers to Hashem causing existence — and thus Hashem as Pa’alan.

With sec. 3 we are taught there is a second facet, the actual tzimtzum. This allows us to start discussing the lishmah of Torah, which is also Rav Chaim’s conception of deveiqus: to internalize His Thought, His Will.

Then the “chapters” complete this shifting of gears. The lishmah of mitzvos enhances them, but the lishmah of Torah is part of its essence. And so before discussing the power of talmud Torah, Nefesh haChaim includes a description of how to fight the yeitzer hara and achieve lishmah. There is a positive feedback cycle  between performance and attitude — performance generates lishmah (“מתוך שלא לשמה בא לשמה – from doing it not lishmah, one comes to do it lishmah”, Sanhedrin 105b) and lishmah heightens performance.

By making Torah study the identification with Hashem’s Will, and making this lishmah part of its essence, Rav Chaim is defining  Torah study and the cognitive  acquisition of knowledge as value not for its intellectual accomplishment but for its ability to change the self. Nefesh haChaim describes learning a cognitive approach to middah modification. Which is why yir’ah, is a prerequisite to being able to acquire Torah. Cognitively getting facts doesn’t require yir’ah, but being changed by those facts does demand an awareness of the magnitude of what and Who one is confronting.

To Rav Chaim Volozhiner, Talmud Torah is the primary means  for fulfilling the advice of Rabban Gamliel III (the son of Rav Yehudah haNasi) in Avos 2:4, “עשה רצונו כרצונך — make His Will like your will”. It’s a cognitive approach to middah modification. All of the power to repair the world (sec. 1) through our actions and to draw Hashem’s shefa into it with speech (sec. 2) only has value if we first turn our wills into His Will (sec. 4), so that our attempts to perfect the world actually improve it.

And so, Rav Chaim isn’t entirely denying the traditional understanding of Torah lishmah. It is still meant as being for the sake of others, just as Hashem “Acts” on the behalf of others. And this other-focus is a central theme in how the author raised his son. But its lishmah is not for the sake of doing or the Doer, but for the sake of acquiring the Torah itself, the Will of the Creator (as explained in sec. 3), to be capable of repairing the world (sec. 1 & 2) in the future.

Why give?

If we look in the Torah at verses that describe our obligations to give or loan to others, it is common for them to conclude with “I am your G-d”. For example:

וְכַרְמְךָ לֹא תְעוֹלֵל, וּפֶרֶט כַּרְמְךָ לֹא תְלַקֵּט; לֶעָנִי וְלַגֵּר תַּעֲזֹב אֹתָם; אֲנִי ה אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם.

Do not totally glean your vineyard, and the fallen [fruit] from your vineyard do not gather up, they should be left for the poor and the stranger, I am Hashem your G-d. (19:10)

Similarly the pasuq whose conclusion Rabbi Aqiva considers the Torah’s most fundamental rule

לֹא תִקֹּם וְלֹא תִטֹּר אֶת בְּנֵי עַמֶּךָ, וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ, אֲנִי ה

Do not take revenge and to not bear a grudge to the people of your nation, and you shall love your friend as yourself, I am Hashem. (v. 18)

and

מִפְּנֵי שֵׂיבָה תָּקוּם, וְהָדַרְתָּ פְּנֵי זָקֵן; וְיָרֵאתָ מֵּאֱ-לֹהֶיךָ, אֲנִי ה.

Rise before the elderly and honor the face of an old man, and you shall feel awe/fear from your G-d, I am Hashem. (v. 32)

and

כְּאֶזְרָח מִכֶּם יִהְיֶה לָכֶם הַגֵּר הַגָּר אִתְּכֶם וְאָהַבְתָּ לוֹ כָּמוֹךָ, כִּי גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם: אֲנִי, ה אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם.

Like a native from among you shall be the stranger who lives among you and you shall love him like yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I am Hashem your G-d. (v. 34)

and

וְלֹא תוֹנוּ אִישׁ אֶת-עֲמִיתוֹ, וְיָרֵאתָ מֵאֱ-לֹהֶיךָ:  כִּי אֲנִי ה, אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם

Do not cheat one another, and you should have awe/fear of your G-d, for I am Hashem your G-d. (25:17)

A naive read might be that we are being asked to give to others specifically because Hashem is commanding us to. However, the primary value, Rabbi Aqiva tells us, is “ve’havta lerei’akha kamokha – loving our neighbor as yourself.” And the Alter of Slabodka taught from this pasuq that just as we love ourselves naturally, not because it’s a mitzvah, so to our love and its expression to others should not be from an attitude of “because G-d said so”. As I wrote in the past, Rav Wolbe [Alei Shur vol II pg 152] quotes the Alter of Slabodka’s treatment of this question:

“Ve’ahavta lereiakha komakha — and you shall love your peers like yourself.” That you should love your peer the way you love yourself. You do not love yourself because it is a mitzvah, rather, a plain love. And that is how you should love your peer.

To which Rav Wolbe notes, “This approach is entirely alien to frumkeit.” The frum person is the one who makes sure to have Shabbos guests each week, but whose guests end up feeling much like his tefillin — an object with which he did a mitzvah. A person acting out of frumkeit doesn’t love to love, he loves in order to be a holier person. And ironically, he thereby fails — because he never develops that Image of the Holy One he was created to become. The person who acts from self-interest, even from the interest of ascending closer to G-d, will not reach Him.

The first word in the commandment to loan to another Jew in need without interest is picked up by numerous commentators:

אִם כֶּסֶף תַּלְוֶה אֶת עַמִּי, אֶת הֶעָנִי עִמָּךְ, לֹא תִהְיֶה לוֹ כְּנֹשֶׁה, לֹא תְשִׂימוּן עָלָיו נֶשֶׁךְ.

If you lend money with My nation, with the poor who are with you, do not act like a creditor to him, do not place interest upon him. (Shemos 22:24)

Why the “im — if”? We know from Devarim 15:8 that lending is obligatory, so why is it phrased as though it’s conditional. Rashi, following the Mekhilta, simply says that “im” here means “when”, not “if”. The Ibn Ezra says that lending is conditional, because only few people can afford to perform this mitzvah.

But the Maharal takes an approach which is likely one of the Alter’s sources. In Gur Aryeh, his commentary on the Rashi ad loc, he writes:

For if a person would fulfill these dictates because he is obligated to fulfill the decrees of the King, this would not be the desire of God, for God wants man to fulfill the commandment out of his own desire to do so …

Indeed, if a person would do these three acts out of a sense of being commanded to do so by the King, unwillingly, this would not be something of which God could be proud….

If someone would loan money because he is commanded to do so, it would not be a mitzva, as the mitzva of providing loans must be performed out of the desire of a good heart, as it is written (Devarim 15:10), “and let your heart not feel bad.”

Further, the terms used for others in these mitzvos emphasize our unity. Throughout Vayiqra 25, the recipient is “akhikha – your brother”.

כִּי-יָמוּךְ אָחִיךָ, וּמָכַר מֵאֲחֻזָּתוֹ

If your brother declines in wealth and sold some of his property … (v. 25)

The pasuq that describes the specific mitzvah of tzedaqah:

וְכִי-יָמוּךְ אָחִיךָ, וּמָטָה יָדוֹ עִמָּךְ

If your brother declines in wealth and his means [lit: hand] fail with you … (v. 35).

And:

And if your brother who dwells with you grows poor and is sold … (v. 39)

And if a sojourner or stranger grows wealthy with you and your brother who dwells with him grows poor and sells himself to the stranger … (v. 47)

So then how to we understand our initiial observation, the frequenecy with which Hashem concludes these mitzvos with the words “I am Hashem”?

Rav Shim’on Shkop, in his introduction to Shaarei Yosher, explains the mitzvah of tzedaqah as follows (available in full here, and these sections with more of my commentary here and here):

Similarly it is appropriate to think about all the gifts of heaven “from the dew of the heavens and the fat of the land” (Bereishis 27:38) that they are given to the Jewish people as a whole. Their allotment to individuals is only in their role as caretakers until they divide it to those who need it, to each according to what is worthy for him, and to take for himself what is worthy for himself.
וכן ראוי להתבונן על כל מתנות שמים מטל שמים ומשמני הארץ שהם נתונים לכלל ישראל כולו, והתחלקותם להיחידים הוא רק בתור גזברות, על מנת שיחלקם לנצרכים, לכל אחד כחלק הראוי לו, וליטול לעצמו כפי חלקו הראוי לו.
With this idea one can understand how charity has the effect of enriching the one who performs it, as the sages say on the verse “‘aseir ta’aseir – you shall surely tithe’ – tithe, so that you shall become rich – shetis’asheir” . Someone who is appointed over a small part of the national treasury who does a good job guarding at his appointment as appropriate will be next appointed to oversee a sum greater than that, if he is not promoted in some other way. If they find a flaw in his guard duty, no fine qualities to be found in him will help, and they will demote him to a smaller task. Similarly in the treasuries of heaven which are given to man. If he tithes appropriately, he satisfies his job of disbursement as he is supposed to conduct himself according to the Torah, giving to each as is appropriate according to the teachings of the Torah, then he will become wealthy and be appointed to disburse a greater treasure. And so on, upward and upward so that he can fulfill his lofty desire to do good for the masses through his stewardship of the treasury. In this way a man of reliable spirit does the will of his Maker.
ועל פי דעה זו יובן סגולת הצדקה שמעשרת את בעליה, כמו שדרשו חז״ל על הכתוב “‘עשר תעשר’ – עשר בשביל שתתעשר” (תענית דף ט.), שכמו שהממונה על אוצרות הממשלה באוצר קטן, אם ישמור תפקידו כראוי אז יתמנה להיות גזבר על אוצר גדול מזה, אף אם לא יצטיין במעלות אחרות, ולהיפך, אם יתגלה חסרון במשמרתו, לא יועילו לו כל מעלות שימצאו בו, ויורידוהו למשרה קטנה מזה, כל כך באוצרות שמים הנתנים לאדם, אם מעשר כראוי ממלא תפקיד הגזברות שלו כראוי ליטול לעצמו כפי דרכי התורה, ומחלק למי שראוי כל כך על פי הוראת התורה, אז יתעשר ויתמנה לגזברות על אוצר גדול מזה וכן הלאה למעלה למעלה, למען יתקיים רצון העליון בהטבת הכלל על ידי שמירת האוצר, ובזה איש נאמן רוח עושה רצון קונו יתברך.

We can pick out two aspects to the motivation Rav Shimon for tzedaqah. First, all wealth is from Hashem, and therefore we should be disbursing it according to His Will. Which means sharing with those who don’t have. This is what Hashem reminds us by reiterating that He is our G-d.

Second, all of us are parts of a whole. There is an inherent calling to share with ones bretheren. As the Rambam often phrases a duty between two people in his Seifer haMitzvos, “one part should do for another part”. A person is happiest when his right hand shares with the left. Similarly, the Jewish People, or humanity as a whole.

So the “ani Hashem” is not “because I, the Creator, commanded it”. Rather, “because I, Hashem, provide for all, and unify all under a common mission. And therefore what I give you is part of My giving your brother as well. And your sharing with him is part of what I give to you.”

Earning one’s livelihood

The pasuq reads:

 וּבָא הַלֵּוִי כִּי אֵין לוֹ חֵלֶק וְנַחֲלָה עִמָּךְ, וְהַגֵּר וְהַיָּתוֹם וְהָאַלְמָנָה אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ, וְאָכְלוּ וְשָׂבֵעוּ, לְמַעַן יְבָרֶכְךָ ה אֱלֹקֶיךָ, בְּכָל מַעֲשֵׂה יָדְךָ אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשֶׂה.  {ס}And the Levi, because he doesn’t have a portion nor an inheritance with you, and the ger, and the orphan and the widow, who are within gates, shall come, eat and be satisfied; so that Hashem your G-d may bless you in all the work of your hands which you do.

As this is right at the end of shelishi of parashas Re’eih, the last phrase caught my attention. “All the work for your hands” describes it, what is added by “which you do”?

The line reminded me of a thought I had to answer a different question. The ninth berakhah of the Amidah is called “Birkhas haShanim — Blessing of the Years” (the following is Nusach haGra, but the point remains in all versions):

בָּרֵךְ עָלֵינוּ ה אֱלֹקֵינוּ אֶת הַשָּׁנָה הַזֹּאת וְאֶת כָּל מִינֵי תְבוּאָתָהּ לְטוֹבָה. וְתֵן [טַל וּמָטָר לִ]בְרָכָה עַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה, וְשַׂבְּעֵנוּ מִטּוּבָהּ, וּבָרֵךְ שְׁנָתֵנוּ כַּשָּׁנִים הַטּוֹבוֹת. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה, מְבָרֵךְ הַשָּׁנִים.Bless for us, Hashem our G-d, this year and all its kinds of crop for good. And give [dew and rain for] a blessing upon the face of the earth, satisfy us with its good, and bless our years like the good years. Blessed are You / You are the Source of Blessing, who blesses the years.

Why does this berakhah mix two ideas? Are we asking Hashem to bless all the crops and the land (and in the winter: the rain and dew) which provides them? Or are we asking Him to bless the year to be among the best ones? To understand the berakhah, I turned to my favorite source, Rav Shimon Shkop’s introduction to Shaarei Yosher (in what I called sec. 6: Refinement, part 4:

ותחלת קבלת התורה על ידי משה רבינו ע״ה היתה דמות ואות לכל בני ישראל מקבלי התורה, שכמו שאמר הקב״ה למשה רבינו ע״ה “פסל לך שני לוחות אבנים”, כל כך הוא רמז לכל מקבלי התורה, שיכין כל איש ישראל לוחות לעצמו, לכתוב עליהם דבר ה׳, וכפי הכשרתו בהכנת הלוחות, כן תהיה קבלתו, מתחילה וכן גם אחרי זה אם יתקלקלו אצלו הלוחות, אז לא תתקיים התורה, ועל ידי זה לא יהיה מצוי כל כך ענין פחד משה רבינו ע״ה, שלפי ערך מעלת האדם ביראת ה׳ ובמדות, שהוא לוח לבבו, לפי ערך זה ינתן לו מן השמים קנין התורה, ואם יפול אחר כך ממדרגתו, לפי ערך זה תשכח התורה ממנו, וכמו שאמרו חז״ל שכמה ענינים גורמים לשכחת התורה ר״ל, ועל דבר גדול זה אמרו חז״ל לפרש את הכתוב בסיומא של תורה, “ולכל היד החזקה שעשה משה לעיני כל ישראל”,The beginning of the receiving of the Torah through Moses was a symbol and sign for all of the Jewish people who receive the Torah [since]. Just as Hashem told Moses, “Carve for yourself two stone Tablets”, so too it is advice for all who receive the Torah. Each must prepare Tablets for himself, to write upon them the word of Hashem. According to his readiness in preparing the Tablets, so will be his ability to receive. If in the beginning or even any time after that his Tablets are ruined, then his Torah will not remain. This removes much of Moses’ fear, because according to the value and greatness of the person in Awe/Fear of Hashem and in middos, which are the Tablet of his heart, this will be the measure by which heaven will give him acquisition of Torah. And if he falls from his level, by that amount he will forget his Torah, just as our sages said of a number of things that cause Torah to be forgotten. About this great concept our sages told us to explain the text at the conclusion of the Torah, “and all the great Awe Inspiring acts which Moses wrought before the eyes of all of Israel.” (Devarim 34:12, the closing words of the Torah)

Hashem doesn’t just hand us our needs, He created the notion of having to work for them, because that’s the process by which we hone the middos necessary to embody the Torah. And so, we ask Hashem to bless us with good crops, but we don’t only mention the success at the end, but  ask for His berakhah on the year of process it takes to get those crops. Bless for us this year, that it not only be prosperous, but that we too grow and flourish.

And perhaps that’s what the Torah means here too. We give ma’aser to the Levi “so that Hashem your G-d may bless you in all the work of your hands” — that we have financial success, and blessing in “that you do” — that the activity itself is blessed in how it refines us.

Recorded Video Classes

I just completed a webinar (3 classes, 45 min each) for The Mussar Institute on Project Sinai‘s web site. Recordings of the classes are available on Project Sinai’s site:

  • First Shiur. (The volume is overly loud for the first 3 min or so, which includes most of a rough biography of Rav Shimon Shkop, but not the actual text.)
  • Second Shiur.
  • Third Shiur.

Here is the description of the course from Project Sinai’s site:

An Introduction to Shaarei Yosher, Gates of Integrity

This introduction to Shaarei Yosher presents a global view of life and its purpose from a Mussar-based perspective. Its author, Rav Shimon Shkop, was the founding dean ofYeshivat Shaar haTorah in Grodno, Lithuania. Shaarei Yosher’s introduction is about our mission in life, and how holiness, self-sufficiency, and generosity are interrelated.

Rabbi Micha Berger is the founder of the AishDas Society, which spreads Mussar practice in the Orthodox community. His mentor was Rabbi Dovid Lifshitz, who was a student of Rav Shimon Shkop, the author of Shaarei Yosher.

Dates: Sundays, May 5, 12 and 19, 8 pm Eastern time. Webinars are 45 minutes.

The Holy Refrain

Rav Shim’on Shkop comments on the Toras Kohanim (a/k/a the Sifra) at the opening of parashas Qedoshim.

Yes, I’m revisiting the introduction to Shaarei Yosher. Again.

And about the foundation of this mitzvah of sanctity the Toras Kohanim has “‘be holy’ – be separate”. Nachmanides, in his commentary on the Torah, explains at length this notion of separation as it is stated in this mitzvah, that it is separation from excessive comfort and pleasure – even if they are actions that are not prohibited to us. In one illustrative statement, he writes that it is possible for a person to be disgusting with [what would otherwise be] the permission of the Torah, see his holy words there.
וביסוד מצוה זו של קדושה איתא בתורת כהנים: “‘קדושים תהיו’ – פרושים תהיו” ,והרמב״ן ז״ל בפירושו על התורה האריך לבאר ענין פרישות האמור במצוה זו שהוא להתרחק מן הנאות ותענוגים יתירים, אף על פי שהם מעשים שאינן אסורים לנו, ובציור מבליט אומר שאפשר לאדם להיות נבל ברשות התורה ועין שם בדבריו הקדושים

Rashi says that the Toras Kohanim refers to the previous section of the Torah, avoiding prohibited relations. The Ramban also emphasizes the concept of separation; but unlike Rashi, his separation is beyond the minimum required of the law. Rav Shim’on, a little farther down, explains this idea further:

In this way, the concept of separation is a consequence of the underlying basis of the mitzvah of holiness, which is recognizable in practice in the ways a person acts. But with insight and the calling of spirituality this mitzvah broadens to include everything a person causes or does even between him and the Omnipresent. In relation to this, this holiness is comparable to the Holiness of the Creator in whatever little similarity. Just as the Act of the Holy One in all of creation, and in each and every moment that He continues to cause the universe to exist; all His actions are sanctified to the good of others, so too it is His Will that our actions be constantly sanctified to the good of the community, and not personal benefit.
ועל פי דרך זה ענין מצוה של פרישות הוא תמצית מיסוד מצות קדושה, הנכרת בפועל בדרכי ההנהגה של האדם, אבל ברעיון ושאיפת הרוח מתרחבת מצוד, זו גם על כל מפעליו ומעשיו של האדם גם בינו לבין המקום, וביחס זה מתדמה ענין קדושה זו לקדושת הבורא ית׳ באיזה דמיון קצת, שכמו שבמעשה של הקב״ה בהבריאה כולה, וכן בכל רגע ורגע שהוא מקיים את העולם, כל מעשיו הם מוקדשים לטובת זולתו, כן רצונו ית׳ שיהיו מעשינו תמיד מוקדשים לטובת הכלל ולא להנאת עצמו.

Qedushah is the commitment to Hashem’s goal in creation (which is being good to others), and this concept of separation is a consequence of Qedushah, not its definition.  Commitment to one call necessary causes a neglect of other goals and anything distracting from our great task.

When we leined parashas Qedoshim, I realize that Rav Shim’on’s approach is inherent in the words of the chapter. Here is chapter 19:

א וַיְדַבֵּר ה׳ אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. ב דַּבֵּר אֶל כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי ה׳ אֱ‑לֹקֵיכֶם. ג אִישׁ אִמּוֹ וְאָבִיו תִּירָאוּ וְאֶת שַׁבְּתֹתַי תִּשְׁמֹרוּ אֲנִי ה׳ אֱ‑לֹקֵיכֶם. ד אַל תִּפְנוּ אֶל הָאֱלִילִים וֵאלֹהֵי מַסֵּכָה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ לָכֶם אֲנִי ה׳ אֱ‑לֹקֵיכֶם. ה וְכִי תִזְבְּחוּ זֶבַח שְׁלָמִים לַיהוָה לִרְצֹנְכֶם תִּזְבָּחֻהוּ. ו בְּיוֹם זִבְחֲכֶם יֵאָכֵל וּמִמָּחֳרָת וְהַנּוֹתָר עַד יוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי בָּאֵשׁ יִשָּׂרֵף. ז וְאִם הֵאָכֹל יֵאָכֵל בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי פִּגּוּל הוּא לֹא יֵרָצֶה. ח וְאֹכְלָיו עֲו‍ֹנוֹ יִשָּׂא כִּי אֶת קֹדֶשׁ ה׳ חִלֵּל וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא מֵעַמֶּיהָ. ט וּבְקֻצְרְכֶם אֶת קְצִיר אַרְצְכֶם לֹא תְכַלֶּה פְּאַת שָׂדְךָ לִקְצֹר וְלֶקֶט קְצִירְךָ לֹא תְלַקֵּט. י וְכַרְמְךָ לֹא תְעוֹלֵל וּפֶרֶט כַּרְמְךָ לֹא תְלַקֵּט לֶעָנִי וְלַגֵּר תַּעֲזֹב אֹתָם אֲנִי ה׳ אֱ‑לֹקֵיכֶם. יא לֹא תִּגְנֹבוּ וְלֹא תְכַחֲשׁוּ וְלֹא תְשַׁקְּרוּ אִישׁ בַּעֲמִיתוֹ. יב וְלֹא תִשָּׁבְעוּ בִשְׁמִי לַשָּׁקֶר וְחִלַּלְתָּ אֶת שֵׁם אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲנִי ה׳. יג לֹא תַעֲשֹׁק אֶת רֵעֲךָ וְלֹא תִגְזֹל לֹא תָלִין פְּעֻלַּת שָׂכִיר אִתְּךָ עַד בֹּקֶר. יד לֹא תְקַלֵּל חֵרֵשׁ וְלִפְנֵי עִוֵּר לֹא תִתֵּן מִכְשֹׁל וְיָרֵאתָ מֵּאֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲנִי ה׳. טו לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ עָוֶל בַּמִּשְׁפָּט לֹא תִשָּׂא פְנֵי דָל וְלֹא תֶהְדַּר פְּנֵי גָדוֹל בְּצֶדֶק תִּשְׁפֹּט עֲמִיתֶךָ. טז לֹא תֵלֵךְ רָכִיל בְּעַמֶּיךָ לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל דַּם רֵעֶךָ אֲנִי ה׳. יז לֹא תִשְׂנָא אֶת אָחִיךָ בִּלְבָבֶךָ הוֹכֵחַ תּוֹכִיחַ אֶת עֲמִיתֶךָ וְלֹא תִשָּׂא עָלָיו חֵטְא. יח לֹא תִקֹּם וְלֹא תִטֹּר אֶת בְּנֵי עַמֶּךָ וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ אֲנִי ה׳. יט אֶת חֻקֹּתַי תִּשְׁמֹרוּ בְּהֶמְתְּךָ לֹא תַרְבִּיעַ כִּלְאַיִם שָׂדְךָ לֹא תִזְרַע כִּלְאָיִם וּבֶגֶד כִּלְאַיִם שַׁעַטְנֵז לֹא יַעֲלֶה עָלֶיךָ. כ וְאִישׁ כִּי יִשְׁכַּב אֶת אִשָּׁה שִׁכְבַת זֶרַע וְהִוא שִׁפְחָה נֶחֱרֶפֶת לְאִישׁ וְהָפְדֵּה לֹא נִפְדָּתָה אוֹ חֻפְשָׁה לֹא נִתַּן לָהּ בִּקֹּרֶת תִּהְיֶה לֹא יוּמְתוּ כִּי לֹא חֻפָּשָׁה. כא וְקֵבִיא אֶת אֲשָׁמוֹ לַיהוָה אֶל פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד אֵיל אָשָׁם. כב וְכִפֶּר עָלָיו הַכֹּקֵן בְּאֵיל הָאָשָׁם לִפְנֵי ה׳ עַל חַטָּאתוֹ אֲשֶׁר חָטָא וְנִסְלַח לוֹ מֵחַטָּאתוֹ אֲשֶׁר חָטָא.
כג וְכִי תָבֹאוּ אֶל הָאָרֶץ וּנְטַעְתֶּם כָּל עֵץ מַאֲכָל וַעֲרַלְתֶּם עָרְלָתוֹ אֶת פִּרְיוֹ שָׁלֹשׁ שָׁנִים יִהְיֶה לָכֶם עֲרֵלִים לֹא יֵאָכֵל. כד וּבַשָּׁנָה הָרְבִיעִת יִהְיֶה כָּל פִּרְיוֹ קֹדֶשׁ הִלּוּלִים לַה. כה וּבַשָּׁנָה הַחֲמִישִׁת תֹּאכְלוּ אֶת פִּרְיוֹ לְהוֹסִיף לָכֶם תְּבוּאָתוֹ אֲנִי ה׳ אֱ‑לֹקֵיכֶם. כו לֹא תֹאכְלוּ עַל הַדָּם לֹא תְנַחֲשׁוּ וְלֹא תְעוֹנֵנוּ. כז לֹא תַקִּפוּ פְּאַת רֹאשְׁכֶם וְלֹא תַשְׁחִית אֵת פְּאַת זְקָנֶךָ. כח וְשֶׂרֶט לָנֶפֶשׁ לֹא תִתְּנוּ בִּבְשַׂרְכֶם וּכְתֹבֶת קַעֲקַע לֹא תִתְּנוּ בָּכֶם אֲנִי ה׳. כט אַל תְּחַלֵּל אֶת בִּתְּךָ לְהַזְנוֹתָהּ וְלֹא תִזְנֶה הָאָרֶץ וּמָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ זִמָּה. ל אֶת שַׁבְּתֹתַי תִּשְׁמֹרוּ וּמִקְדָּשִׁי תִּירָאוּ אֲנִי ה׳. לא אַל תִּפְנוּ אֶל הָאֹבֹת וְאֶל הַיִּדְּעֹנִים אַל תְּבַקְשׁוּ לְטָמְאָה בָהֶם אֲנִי ה׳ אֱ‑לֹקֵיכֶם. לב מִפְּנֵי שֵׂיבָה תָּקוּם וְהָדַרְתָּ פְּנֵי זָקֵן וְיָרֵאתָ מֵּאֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲנִי ה׳.              לג  וְכִי יָגוּר אִתְּךָ גֵּר בְּאַרְצְכֶם לֹא תוֹנוּ אֹתוֹ. לד כְּאֶזְרָח מִכֶּם יִהְיֶה לָכֶם הַגֵּר הַגָּר אִתְּכֶם וְאָהַבְתָּ לוֹ כָּמוֹךָ כִּי גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם אֲנִי ה׳ אֱ‑לֹקֵיכֶם. לה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ עָוֶל בַּמִּשְׁפָּט בַּמִּדָּה בַּמִּשְׁקָל וּבַמְּשׂוּרָה. לו מֹאזְנֵי צֶדֶק אַבְנֵי צֶדֶק אֵיפַת צֶדֶק וְהִין צֶדֶק יִהְיֶה לָכֶם אֲנִי ה׳ אֱ‑לֹקֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם. לז וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת כָּל חֻקֹּתַי וְאֶת כָּל מִשְׁפָּטַי וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם אֲנִי ה׳.

Notice our clause (in large), introduces a recurring closing in the section. “Be holy for I, Hashem Your G-d, am Holy”, “I am Hashem your G-d”, “I am Hashem your G-d”, I am Hashem”, etc…

The structure connects the concept of holiness to the mitzvos if avoiding idolatry, leaving crops for the poor, the widow, the orphan and the convert, no taking false oaths, not tripping up others with bad advice, not to stand by when someone else is in trouble, not to carry hate around, not to take revenge, or bear a grudge, to love others, ….

The pasuq introduces the following text. Yes, Rashi says being holy requires all avoiding the prohitions of the previous chapter. But this is a precondition. The actual concept of holiness is defined in the variety of mitzvos between man and G-d and between man and other people in this chapter.